Monday, September 16, 2019

Stories of an extraordinary world : the last of the great explorers

From The Economist by Oliver Franklin-Wallis

The ocean floor is the Earth’s last great uncharted region.
Oliver Franklin-Wallis joins the man descending to the bottom of the deepest trenches on the planet

The Submarine DSV Limiting Factor bobbed in the Atlantic swell.
Gleaming white, with a hull the shape of a hip flask, its lights gave the water an otherworldly glow.
Stooping slightly inside the crew compartment—a snug titanium sphere 1.5 metres across with two white leather seats and three portholes the size of dinner plates—Victor Vescovo looked into the gloom.
Eight kilometres below him, at the floor of the Puerto Rico Trench, lay his destination: the Brownson Deep, the deepest point in the Atlantic.

Vescovo braced as a wave rocked the hull.
Tall and athletic, with a blond ponytail and white beard, Vescovo is a Texan private-equity investor.
He had scaled the tallest mountain on every continent and skied the last degree to both Poles, making him one of only a few dozen people to have completed the “Explorer’s Grand Slam”.
Now, at 53, there were no mountains higher.
Every continent was mapped and visible on Google Earth.
He wanted to make history.
The only way was down.

The deep ocean is the Earth’s last great unexplored frontier.
Below the surface, sunlight fades.
Soon you are in total darkness.
It is cold.
Communication is difficult.
At 100 metres the pressure is ten times that on the surface; at 2,000 metres, it is great enough to collapse a US Navy submarine.
Apart from Vescovo’s, fewer than ten manned craft are currently able to operate below 3,700 metres, the ocean’s average depth, and no other active ones can go below 7,500 metres.
At that point, submariners enter what oceanographers call the Hadal Zone, derived from Hades – the Ancient Greek underworld.
The ocean’s deepest point, the Pacific’s Challenger Deep, is nearly 11km down.
When Vescovo set out, only three men had ever seen it.
Twelve have walked on the Moon.

No one had ever reached the deepest points in all five oceans.
So in 2015 Vescovo hired Triton Submarines, a company that makes private submersibles, to build him a craft that could take him to them.
Three years in development, at a cost of $49m, the Limiting Factor (named for a spacecraft in Iain M.
Banks’s sci-fi Culture novels) was the most advanced private submersible ever built.
Vescovo also bought a ship, the DSSV Pressure Drop, which he fitted out with an advanced sonar-imaging system to map the seafloor in unprecedented detail.
He called his year-long expedition “The Five Deeps”, and invited a documentary crew from the Discovery Channel to chronicle the historic endeavour.

But now, with the Puerto Rico Trench yawning beneath him, the whole enterprise was in jeopardy.
For five days the Limiting Factorhad failed to launch.
The first dive was called off when water began to trickle in from the inner hatch.
Leaks on submarines are not the catastrophe you might assume; as the submarine descends, the increasing pressure tends to close any gaps tight.
But at Hadal depths, that wasn’t worth the risk.
On the second attempt, the leak persisted.

A third attempt.
The hatch was still leaking.
There were other problems too.
The ballast system, designed to control buoyancy, didn’t work properly.
Cameras broke.
Alarms sounded in the cockpit.
Still they dived.
Then calamity struck.
At 1,000 metres, a frangible bolt—which was supposed to detach explosively in the event of power loss to shed weight—broke off.
The bolt had been securing the submarine’s $350,000 robotic arm, designed to collect rock and sediment samples.
Vescovo watched through the porthole as it slumped to the sea floor.
To make things worse, as the injured submarine was lifted from the water, a violent swell smashed it against the ship’s stern, damaging a set of propellers.

Back on board the ship, Patrick Lahey, the president of Triton, felt crushed.
A sun-weathered Canadian who used the F-word with flair, Lahey had spent decades building submersibles for wealthy clients.
The Limiting Factor was the pinnacle of his career.
He threw the documentary crew out of the submarine hangar while his engineers surveyed the damage.
It was in dire shape.
Rebuilding it on land would take days.

Stewing in his cabin Vescovo considered cancelling the whole venture.
The ship had to return to port in three days’ time to resupply.
A lengthy refit of the submarine could mean missing their weather window in the Antarctic, delaying the whole expedition by a year and costing millions of dollars.
A producer in London asked one of the documentary crew when the sub would be operational: “When pigs fly,” supposedly came the response.

That evening the expedition crew gathered around the long central table in mission control.
The mood was tense.
Sonar depth charts lit up a bank of displays overhead.
After talking through the risks with Lahey and his team, Vescovo agreed to one last attempt.
If that didn’t work he would call off the expedition.
Triton’s engineers worked through the night.
They replaced the hatch seal with a new, softer rubber, fixed the camera and rewired faulty circuits.

Out on the water the next morning Vescovo mentally ran through his final pre-dive checklist.
He examined the hatch above him.
Not a drop was coming in.
In front of him two tablet computers displayed the sub’s key readings.
On his right, red and green lights on the central power console glowed reassuringly.
Electrical systems: good.
The radio crackled with chatter from mission control.
Communications: good.
Above Vescovo’s forehead a stuffed penguin—a gift from his sister—perched on a bank of white oxygen tanks that would sustain him through the six-hour dive and days longer, if necessary.
Life support: good.
The final confirmation came over the radio: “LF…you are free to dive.”

Vescovo initiated the dive sequence.
The LF’s ballast tanks began filling with seawater, taking on weight.
Slowly, the sub began sinking below the surface.
Vescovo settled in as the ocean outside darkened through every shade of blue.

The ocean covers nearly three-quarters of the Earth’s surface yet more than 80% of it remains unexplored.
Radar doesn’t penetrate deep water, so accurate depth soundings must be made by ships with high-resolution sonar.
It’s slow, boring work.
The maps we do have are at best an approximation.
New discoveries are common.
The search for Malaysian Airways flight MH370 turned up previously undiscovered undersea volcanoes and trenches.
We have more accurate maps of Mars than we do of two-thirds of our own planet.

Vescovo wanted to be an explorer from “the beginning of thought”.
Growing up in Dallas, he often disappeared alone on his bike for hours.
His father, who worked in real estate, would find Vescovo miles from home, unfazed.
He was a voracious reader and excelled at school (“I tested well,” he said).
He studied economics and political science at Stanford and took a Masters at MIT.
Shortly after graduating, while backpacking in Kenya, he discovered mountaineering.
“I loved the fact that it combines physical stamina—just being able to take punishment—as well as technical knowledge,” he said.
Vescovo had always enjoyed maps and data, ways to bring order to the world.
(In 2006 he self-published a book, “The Atlas of World Statistics”.) He found climbing as much an intellectual challenge as a physical one.
A mountain was a test that required solving with his whole body.

In 2002, after a few years in management consultancy, Vescovo co-founded Insight Equity, a private-equity firm.
It specialised in turning around industrial companies.
“We put in a lot of our own money into the deals, which meant that when they went well, we did very well,” he said.
It went very well.
He bought three Lamborghinis and the house next door in which to fix them up.
As a boy, Vescovo had wanted to become an air-force pilot.
Poor eyesight ruled out a combat career, but he learned to fly anyway: light aircraft, helicopters and, eventually, his own private jet.
Later, he joined the navy reserve.
For 20 years he periodically took time out from his career to serve.

When he wasn’t working Vescovo tackled ever tougher ascents: Denali in Alaska; Aconcagua in Argentina; Elbrus, the highest mountain in Russia.
In 2010 he attempted Everest.
It was May, late in the climbing season, and bad weather rolled in as Vescovo’s group approached the summit.
“We couldn’t see more than 20 metres,” he told me.
They reached the top, but the view was shrouded in blinding snow.
After brief rest and pictures—in one you can see Vescovo, his beard encrusted with ice, holding a “Beat Cal” flag in tribute to his alma mater—the party started back down.
“I was…annoyed doesn’t begin to describe it,” he told me, his disappointment still audible.
Nevertheless, he had beaten the mountain.
“Mountaineering teaches a very important lesson, which is live to fight another day,” he said.

Everest conquered, he set out for the Poles.
That was a different type of gruelling experience: desolate, alien.
In the pitiless cold it felt like an entire continent was against him.
“The North Pole is much harder,” he says.
“It’s moving, so you go to sleep and when you wake up you’re farther away than when you started.
If anything gets wet, or you sweat, you cannot dry it out.
It’s impossible.”

Afterwards he began to look for his next project.
In 2012 James Cameron, who directed “Titanic”, had dived the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench in the Pacific with his own custom-built submarine, the Deepflight Challenger.
Vescovo also heard that Richard Branson, a British entrepreneur, had quietly shelved his plan to dive the deep-ocean trenches when he discovered his submarine would be rendered unusable after a single dive.
“I started doing some research and realised, wow, it’s never been done,” Vescovo said.

By then Vescovo was rich.
But the money didn’t interest him.
“When you get to about eight figures, that’s when you start going, how much money do I really need?” He hadn’t married or had children; work always seemed to get in the way.
He had a girlfriend but no dependents, other than his three black Belgian Schipperkes, Ivan, Nikolai and Mishka.
“I’m not trying to be the wealthiest guy.
I’m competitive, but not in that way.
I don’t have a family that I need to provide for.” In the Five Deeps expedition he saw an opportunity to join the ranks of great explorers—Roald Amundsen, Neil Armstrong—and advance understanding of the deep ocean at the same time.
Plus, he said, it was “a nice cool adventure, that I could afford”.

As the Limiting Factor descended into the Puerto Rico Trench, the gold-rimmed depth gauge slowly rotated before Vescovo’s eyes: 1,000 metres, 2,000 metres, 3,000 metres.
Though the vessel was descending fast, Vescovo could feel barely any movement.
Only the temperature changed, as the titanium hull plummeted farther from the sun.

Every 15 minutes Vescovo reported on his depth, heading and oxygen levels.
The hydrophone screeched whenever a message came in.
Vescovo jotted down instrument readings and the occasional observation in his blue leather notebook.
He had prepared tirelessly for this moment.
During the sub’s development, Triton had built a full-scale simulator in Vescovo’s Dallas garage.
Every weekend for months his girlfriend would laugh as he climbed inside to practise dives for hours on end.

He had honed his discipline in the navy.
Piloting the sub, he said, “isn’t exactly like flying, but it rhymes”.
The maxims were the same: live by the checklist; carve the routines into muscle memory; never get complacent.
“There shouldn’t be heroics,” he said.
“If there are heroics on an expedition, someone screwed up.
It’s just like war: when you see a soldier with a whole bunch of medals, it’s like, ‘boy, you must have had some shitty commanders’.” Before each attempt, he and Lahey would joke: let’s have a boring dive today.

As the sub reached the sea floor, the first thing Vescovo noticed was the brightness.
The silt was mixed with glass-like microalgae called diatoms, and, reflecting the bright light emitted by the sub’s LEDs, it dazzled him.
The water was spectacularly clear: a sparse, pristine landscape stretched in every direction, interrupted only by a few rocks and dark mats of seaweed, fallen from above.
Vescovo radioed to the surface.
“Depth: 8,375 metres, at bottom”.
He switched on the documentary cameras and began to explore.

Deep-ocean trenches are volatile landscapes, formed when one tectonic plate is forced under another.
The consequences of movement can be catastrophic: an earthquake at the bottom of the Indian Ocean on Boxing Day 2004 triggered a tsunami that killed over 227,000 people.
“They’re very active environments,” Heather Stewart, the Five Deeps team’s resident geologist, told me.
“Epic 3,000-metre cliffs, active faults, volcanoes.
If these features were on land, they would be World Heritage sites.”

Until the mid-19th century, it was widely thought that the deepest level of the ocean was barren – that the pressure was too great for life to survive.
Advances in technology have proved this hypothesis wrong.
Deep-sea vents are breeding grounds for chemosynthetic bacteria, which get their energy from chemical reactions, feeding trenches that teem with life: ghostly, translucent snailfish; grazing sea cucumbers; writhing, prawn-like amphipods.
“There’s been a whole community that seems to occupy a huge part of our planet and no one had known about it because no one ever goes deep enough,” said Alan Jamieson, the expedition’s lead scientist, a gruff Scot.
Jamieson literally wrote the book on the Hadal Zone.
(It’s called “The Hadal Zone”.)

Vescovo spent more than an hour navigating the bottom.
For company he talked to the documentary cameras in the cockpit.
Though he couldn’t see much beyond the glare in the portholes, the expedition also made its first contribution to ocean science: the landers, which make observations and take samples from the deepest waters, documented four new species of amphipod in the Puerto Rico Trench.

That evening, as the sunset daubed orange across the horizon, the Limiting Factor broke the surface of the Atlantic.
On board, the expedition crew cheered and embraced each other.
At least one of them cried.
Lahey called the dive “probably the proudest moment of my life, other than the birth of my kids”.
Vescovo grinned as he climbed out of the hatch and into the waiting dinghy.
“One down,” he said.

Six months later, I boarded the Pressure Drop in Tonga, in the South Pacific.
By then the expedition had already completed four of the five deeps.
They had overcome icebergs and roaring seas to dive the South Sandwich Trench in the Southern Ocean.
In April the Limiting Factor became the first manned vessel to explore the Java Trench in the Indian Ocean, 7,192 metres down.
(The Indonesian government refused to grant a dive permit, so the ship turned off its tracking beacons, went dark and dived anyway.)
In May, Vescovo had beaten James Cameron’s all-time depth record, reaching 10,928 metres in the Pacific’s Challenger Deep.

In the submarine hangar the Triton crew were working on the Limiting Factor.
Suspended in its steel cradle, the submersible looked like a spacecraft, every line designed for efficient vertical travel.
The outer flotation hull was scratched and dented, scars from more than two-dozen dives.
“This thing takes more abuse than the space shuttle,” said Kelvin McGee, the sub’s stout, irrepressible operations manager, patting the side proudly.

Another engineer, drenched in oil, was repairing the robotic arm.
“You can’t step into Walmart and buy those parts,” said Lahey.
“Everything has to be made, designed, tested.” The titanium for the crew compartment was 9cm thick, he explained, milled to a 99.933% perfect sphere to evenly distribute pressure.
The tolerances were so fine that the forge in LA had to develop a new manufacturing method.
Any less could risk structural weakness and a fatal implosion.

When Vescovo first contacted Triton in 2015, he just wanted something basic: “a vehicle that could get to the bottom and back up”.
Lahey convinced him to add a second seat and the robotic arm which, though it increased the price considerably, would make the sub an asset for deep-ocean science by enabling researchers to collect geological and biological samples from the trench floor.
It would also make the sub more attractive to eventual buyers once the expedition was over.
“This is not a one-shot craft,” Lahey told me.
“It wasn’t intended to do Victor’s hero dives”—as several of the crew sarcastically called them—“and then be retired to a museum.”

Lahey has spent his life in the water: first as a commercial diver, then as a sub pilot, finally as an engineer.
He has seen manned submarines fall out of favour in oceanography, with the rise of underwater drones.
But for Lahey, drones offer a superficial experience of ocean life.
“Imagine doing your bird-watching through a drone,” he said dismissively.
Being in a submarine, floating over a reef, he said, “changes you.
It’s quiet, it’s peaceful.
There’s beautiful colours, it’s teeming with life.
It really is sublime.”

There was a hum of motors.
The arm was working again.
“That’s fucking beautiful! An extra ration of rum for you this evening,” Lahey said.
The engineer smiled.
“Oh, I’m drinking a bottle tonight!”

By then the expedition had become a tight-knit operation.
The crew had bonded over months at sea (“One great big dysfunctional family!” Lahey joked) and at mealtimes they would tell war stories: memorable dives, previous expeditions, near misses.
Vescovo talked about Everest or his tours in the navy reserves.
At times it seemed as though he saw those as his true career, and investment as the hobby.

Each dive began in the same way: Vescovo would wake before dawn, don his blue flight suit, pack his usual lunch—a tuna sandwich, a Coke and crisps—and climb down the narrow chute into the cockpit, before launching into the darkness.
Descent and ascent took up to four hours each way.
There was no toilet, only a bottle (“or as we pilots like to call them, ‘range extenders’”).
To stave off boredom between communications checks, Vescovo watched films or history documentaries on his phone.
But once at depth he barely had time to appreciate his surroundings.
“When you’re at the bottom, a minute feels like ten seconds. When you’re on the way up, a minute feels like 20 minutes,” he said.

He no longer worried about his own safety.
“It’s a titanium sphere that’s bolted together.
It would take God himself to try and crack that thing,” Vescovo said.
“The most dangerous thing would be if there is some major collision and pieces of the foam sheared off. Then all of a sudden, I’m negatively buoyant and I can’t get back up. But the possibility is just so remote.”

After each dive Jamieson fell into a routine: empty the landers’ traps, photograph and measure each specimen—“length it, weight it, sex it”—and take white-tissue samples, before freezing them.
Deep-sea crustaceans have evolved for Hadal depths and pressures, so “on the surface, they’re basically cooking”.

The Hadal Zone makes up less than 1% of the ocean by area, but, viewed in cross-section, it accounts for almost half the depth.
“And it gets ignored,” Jamieson said.
Maps decorated the walls of his office, a narrow room just off mission control.
On a shelf lay two rubber ducks, from his son back home in Scotland.
He showed me some videos from the deeps.
The footage was full of life: in Java, thousands of tiny translucent sea cucumbers grazed in the sand like cattle.
Fish swarmed the landers’ bait traps.
“Other than tropical lagoons, where else do you see such abundance?” Jamieson marvelled.

With the expedition approaching its final leg, the emotional highs of the early accomplishments had faded and left a slight sense of regret.
The Challenger dives had made headlines worldwide.
But it wasn’t their achievements that had caught the world’s imagination.
Instead, every headline was about the revelation that Vescovo had filmed a plastic bag at the bottom.
Vescovo and the crew were livid.
It wasn’t even true.
Vescovo had filmed something plastic in the Java Trench—they don’t know what it was—and a press release had mixed it up with Mariana Trench.
Soon the mistake echoed around the world.
“That fucking plastic bag,” said Jamieson.
“It wasn’t even the right trench!”

Four deeps completed, and the Limiting Factor had also failed to collect any sediment or water samples, in part because of Vescovo’s insistence on diving solo.
Although the arm had been replaced after Puerto Rico, it was too difficult for one person to operate it and also pilot the sub.
The plan had been to follow each solo attempt with a two-person science dive, but several of these had been scrapped due to the submarine’s early technical challenges.
In the Southern Ocean Vescovo had accidentally turned the cameras off, resulting in no footage at all.
“Half the science is already dead,” Jamieson said, irritated.
For him, every “hero dive” was a missed opportunity.
“There’s no actual scientific basis for [them] at all,” Jamieson said.

The Tonga Trench is the second-deepest on the planet but it had never been explored in detail.
Vescovo hoped it might prove to be even deeper than the Mariana Trench.
If so, it would be a historic discovery.
As we sailed over the trench, the sonar scanned the seabed, building up a detailed picture of the chasm below.
While engineers tinkered with the sub, Vescovo mostly worked alone in his cabin.

In his office the expedition’s leader, Rob McCallum, watched the weather charts intently.
A low-pressure system was mustering off New Zealand, threatening the dive.
“It could get a little sporty,” he said.
A veteran of countless dive expeditions, McCallum was used to managing wealthy clients.
“It’s my job to be brutally honest,” he explained.
The job required tact, and patience.
“I’m on a crusade against ego. Ego gets people in trouble.”

That evening McCallum gathered the crew in mission control.
The map of the trench illuminated two large monitors.
Sonar readings had dashed Vescovo’s hopes for the all-time record: the bottom was shallower than the Challenger Deep by less than 100 metres.
Nonetheless, Vescovo would dive the deepest point.
Then, weather allowing, the plan was to dive to a spectacular cliff face accompanied by Stewart, the expedition’s geologist.
It was to be Stewart’s first dive, making her the first woman to travel to the Hadal Zone.
The weather, however, threatened to end the trip early.
“If we do just one dive, it will be the dual dive,” Vescovo said, to some surprise.
But the next day, with the low-pressure front dithering to the south, he decided to go ahead solo.

The launch went smoothly.
But after about an hour on the bottom, Vescovo reported to the surface that the Limiting Factor’s battery levels were unusually low.
A few minutes later Lahey received a text message over the communicator: Vescovo’s systems were shutting down.
Frustrated, he aborted the dive.
Later, it would emerge that water had broken into one of the sub’s junction boxes, shorting a circuit and melting a hole in the side.
Though Vescovo was safe inside the cockpit, the damage was extensive (“The deepest submarine fire ever!” Vescovo joked).
Repairs would take days.
The second dive was cancelled.

Afterwards, Stewart disappeared to her cabin, clearly devastated.
Vescovo seemed to regret the outcome.
“I feel bad for her, though it is what it is.” There would be other chances, he said.
And a sub fire at depth could have been far worse.
“It’s an expedition,” Vescovo said.
McCallum nodded.
“Not a cruise.”

Later, in a quiet moment, I asked Vescovo why he insisted on diving solo.
“It’s just how I am. I can’t answer it any more than that. I really can’t,” he said.
“I like climbing alone, I like flying alone. I like doing things by myself, I guess, because it’s a more intense experience. On the other side I’d know it was me that was responsible for it and I took care of things. I put myself in that position with no reliance on anyone else.”

Despite setbacks, the expedition had still made significant contributions to ocean science.
Jamieson had catalogued several possible new species of amphipods, at least one new species of snailfish and a mysterious stalked ascidian—a gelatinous cloud-like creature with a long tail—that seemed to fly like a kite in the current.
After the Java and Mariana records, he’d accompanied Vescovo on science dives, finally visiting the undersea realm he’d studied for a decade.
(It was, he said with typical understatement, “fucking awesome”.)

The sonar team had produced the first detailed maps of several trenches, which Vescovo pledged to share with the Seabed 2030 project, an international effort to map the sea floor.
“First people to do Java, San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Tonga.
Even if we do one dive, at least we’ve got something to go on.
It does have an extraordinarily high value to it,” Jamieson said.
“It’s just a shame,” he added, that they hadn’t done more.
Ultimately, Vescovo planned to sell the submarine and the Pressure Drop to a scientific body.

For Lahey and McCallum, the legacy of the expedition wasn’t the records but the Limiting Factor itself.
“Victor, he’s a peak bagger. For him, it’s about ‘I got there first, I got there fastest.’ We don’t belittle that, [but] you know, I couldn’t give a shit,” McCallum told me.
“The thing that’s important to me is that this is the first time in history that humankind has had a vehicle that can go to any place in the ocean.
What it means is that there is now nothing in the ocean that cannot be revisited and recovered.”

In August, the Limiting Factor was scheduled to dive the Molloy Deep, the last of the Five Deeps, in the only ocean it hadn’t yet explored: the Arctic.
Afterwards, the ship would sail to London for a congratulatory ceremony at the Royal Geographic Society.
There the crew would disperse: Jamieson and Stewart to write up their discoveries, the Triton contingent to work on commercial submarines, McCallum to his next client.
Vescovo was already thinking about another adventure.

Those who make history often find that returning to normality takes the greatest toll.
Buzz Aldrin talked of “the melancholy of all things done”.
Vescovo claimed not to be interested in fame.
“I’m not on Facebook, not on Instagram, not into social media.
I don’t understand why people are,” he said.
He seemed to crave a less transient form of recognition.
The site of Vescovo’s dive in the Southern Ocean was previously unmapped, and, in keeping with oceanographic tradition, Vescovo hoped to name it the Factorian Deep, after his submarine – finally putting his achievement on the maps that he’d loved as a boy.

“I was raised Episcopalian, but I’m probably more Zen Buddhist,” he told me.
The ship’s mess, which Vescovo had decorated with old film posters – “Submarine”, “20,000 Leagues under the Sea” – was deserted.
The ship rocked quietly.
“I know that everything is impermanent. I know immortality isn’t celebrity and so therefore I do not seek it. Instead, I seek what I can hold, which is the experience of doing all these things. I desire to live intensely.”

Vescovo, who has lost both parents and an older sister, thinks about mortality a lot.
“So many people in this world, they don’t know it, but they’re half asleep. They’re seeking to be comfortable. That’s not enough. I want to be awake. I’m not here very long, and I’m going to die one day, and I don’t want to go through it looking back and going ‘Gosh, I was asleep this whole time.’
I guarantee, you’re in a submarine at 10,000 metres, circuit-breakers going off behind your head, you’re awake.
Or flying a helicopter and you do your first autorotation with no power, you are bloody awake.
When you’re climbing Everest in the storm, and it is cold, and you’re passing dead bodies and still going up, you are awake.”

There was one last frontier he had yet to visit: space.
“There’s Branson, there’s Bezos, and there’s Musk. They’re all close,” he said.
Vescovo is far less wealthy than Bezos or Musk.
If he does go, it will be in one of their ships, as a paying customer.
The next age of discovery will not play out under the flags of nations but the logos of tech billionaires.

“These guys have a ton more money than I do.
What I never get is: why didn’t they do it themselves? If I was Musk I would be the first guy in that freakin’ rocket,” he said, excitedly.
“I guess they don’t even see themselves as the pilot.
I couldn’t see any other way.”

Links :

Sunday, September 15, 2019

See NASA’s weather data reimagined as a gorgeous antique map

 Image: courtesy Eleanor Lutz

From FastCompany by Mark Wilson

If satellite data about the seasons had been available in the 18th century, maps might have looked something like this one by Eleanor Lutz.

Summer and winter mark the extremes of life on planet earth.
To survive the annual 100-degree temperature fluctuation, we bundle up in coats and scarves one season and strip down to our swimsuits in the other.
A new weather visualization by Eleanor Lutz—a PhD candidate in biology at the University of Washington who has designed graphics for companies like National Geographic, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Adobe—puts that seasonal swing in perspective.

Using satellite weather data from NASA, Lutz created a global GIF that animates the clearest indicators of seasonality across the planet—the cyclical buildup and melting of ice and the annual growth and recession of plants.
Each frame is a month, and the entire image represents one year.

It’s easy to forget just how much snow blankets the north every year, or how rapidly vegetation recedes and recovers around the globe at the scale of hundreds of miles.
But we’re particularly taken by the aesthetic of the map itself, which looks like a hand-painted chart out of some century-old world atlas.
It’s an anachronism, mashing up a time when you could only predict seasonal weather at an incredibly basic level with modern technologies that allow us to track it in real time with pixel-level accuracy from space.

“I wanted to use a classic illustration style to connect our current adventures into space with our history of exploration from hundreds of years ago,” says Lutz.
To do so, she created this bespoke riff on the public-domain Natural Earth map.
She retained the coastlines and topography while getting rid of national boundaries.
As a result, your eye sees a planet, rather than a collection of countries.

The map is a captivating work, but Lutz says it was hard to choose the right subject to visualize, and for good reason. NASA provides its earth science data free and publicly, as part of its core mission to “understand the Sun, Earth, Solar System, and Universe.”
As part of that mission, NASA has data on global fires, temperature, and rainfall.
The fires in particular, a glowing series of dots on an otherwise dark circle, make for a disquieting visual in a thumbnail on her site (see image 1 on her project page), but she chose not to use that data in her main map.

It’s a humbling reminder of how powerful our earth is, and that we will always be at her mercy.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

We want to live underwater (but how??)

During 4 months, we are settling down in Moorea, French Polynesia, for an expedition of unprecedented scale for Under The Pole.
In this first episode, we are presenting to you the Capsule, an underwater observatory that we have invented to allow the divers to live under the ocean for several days! 

Plongee-infos : "Précontinent operation" (1962-1965)
Launched in the 1960s, the Precontinent project aimed to colonize the underwater continental shelf, which represents 5% of the world's surface, more than Asia.
But life inside this "sunless world" has turned out to be much less easy than expected.

SEALAB I, II, and III were experimental underwater habitats developed by the United States Navy in the 1960s to prove the viability of saturation diving and humans living in isolation for extended periods of time.
The knowledge gained from the SeaLab expeditions helped advance the science of deep sea diving and rescue, and contributed to the understanding of the psychological and physiological strains humans can endure.

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Friday, September 13, 2019

Canada (CHS) layer update in the GeoGarage platform

67 nautical raster charts have been updated & 1 new chart added

Meet Jeanne Socrates: the woman who sailed around the world in 340 days (aged 77)

Britain's Jeanne Socrates arrives in Victoria Harbour, Vancouver Island after a record breaking journey that will see her name go down as the oldest person to circumnavigate the globe, unassisted and non stop. The 77 year old is greeted by a crowd of cheering supporters.

From The Times by Michael Odell

She set sail to scatter her husband’s ashes — and then kept going.
She talks about the adversity she faced on her record-breaking feats

When 77-year-old Jeanne Socrates tells people what she has been doing for the past 11 months they call her “plucky”, “feisty” or “brave”.
She doesn’t like those epithets.
She prefers “crazy”.
“I do think at my age you to have to be a bit crazy,” she says.
“It helps fend off the perfectly rational reasons why you shouldn’t be doing certain things.”

Last Saturday morning Socrates sailed into the port of Victoria in British Columbia to become the oldest person to sail non-stop, unassisted around the world.
A flotilla of 30 boats from the Royal Victoria Yacht Club blew their horns, but before the champagne could be uncorked, an official “finisher” boarded her 38ft yacht Nereida to check that her motor had not been used — one of the strict rules governing unassisted circumnavigation.

Jeanne Socrates has just completed a record-breaking voyage around the globe
Darren Stone / Times Colonist

With her record-breaking voyage certified after 340 days at sea, a local hotel invited Socrates to lunch, a welcome change after almost a year of tinned food, many onions and a surfeit of potatoes.
“I was quite ready for something other than my own onion soup,” she says.
“And the welcome I got just made me think how lovely human beings are.”

This short (12 minute) documentary was shot in the weeks before 76-year-old Jeanne Socrates' October 2018 departure on a non-stop, unassisted, solo circumnavigation.
Jeanne is currently (Dec 2018) the oldest woman to have completed a non-stop solo circumnavigation.
When she completes this voyage, she will be the oldest person to have completed a non-stop solo circumnavigation.
Film student and friend of Good Old Boat magazine Cavan Lyons traveled to Victoria to record Jeanne as she readied herself and her boat.

Socrates doesn’t gush.
She’s happy enough, but also grounded and analytical, as though still assessing whether a whale or an oil tanker might loom up on her port side and ruin her celebrations.
Her record-breaking circumnavigation was nowhere near as fast as the one in 2013, when she whizzed round in 258 days.

“But overall I suppose I am proud for the fact I am not a typical wealthy sailor,” she says.
“I was in an orphanage aged five to nine. There have been some tough times. I think I’ve earned the chance to sail. My motto has long been ‘You’re alive, make the most of it’.”

Socrates is not from seafaring blood.
Born to a 16-year-old mother during the Second World War, she never knew her father, an Australian airman, and ended up in an orphanage in Stepney, east London.
Eventually reunited with her mother and her new husband, Socrates got herself to university and became a maths teacher.

She only took up sailing by chance aged 48 while working at Latymer Upper School in Hammersmith, west London.
One summer in the late 1980s, in the lull after exams, she was asked to lead her pupils in a non-academic pursuit.
She chose birdwatching.
After two years someone suggested she take the pupils on a sailing course at Cowes on the Isle of Wight.
“I just absolutely loved it,” she says.
“They couldn’t get me off the boat.”

She introduced her husband, George, a lecturer in materials science at Brunel University to the pastime.
Together they became quite proficient, although tragically it wasn’t to last.
In 2001, while cruising off Grenada in the Caribbean, he complained of a bad back.
A local GP examined him and told the couple to go home.
Back in the UK, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
Nevertheless, the couple resumed sailing; Socrates even learnt how to inject her husband with his hormone treatment at sea.

Jeanne Socrates route to sail around the world, unassisted and non-stop

By November 2002 they were sailing off the coast of Venezuela when he really began to struggle.
Within four months he was dead.
“He was only 65. He’d taken early retirement to enjoy life. I felt he had been cheated out of something he had earned,” she says.

Anger and grief drove Socrates’s determination.
After the funeral she sold the family home in Ealing, west London.
Then she sailed back to scatter George’s ashes and captain’s cap off Bonaire, an island off the coast of Venezuela near where his final voyage had ended.
After that, she just kept going.
“There is no way I would have tried to circumnavigate solo if George were alive,” she says.
“We loved cruising and stopping off to visit places, but...the boat became my home and I just kept taking on bigger challenges.”

She wasn’t the only one to find it challenging.
When she reached Fiji locals were so shocked to see a lone woman step off a boat they insisted on trying to find her a husband.
“It didn’t make me cross. They just couldn’t cope with it and it was actually quite funny. The best response I felt was to invite them on board and offer them a cup of tea.”

There were several attempts to circumnavigate unassisted between 2007 and 2012 that ended in frustration.
Either she was driven back by weather or her instruments failed.
In 2008 she was just 60 miles short of a 27,500-mile circumnavigation when her autopilot malfunctioned as she slept.
She woke up upside down on the beach in Acapulco.
“The surfers were very kind to me, although one of them made a hole in my boat so no one would steal it, which was distressing,” she recalls.

Socrates finally circumnavigated non-stop and unassisted in 2013 and became the oldest woman to accomplish the feat.
However, an older man had done it — the Japanese sailor Minoru Saito, who had claimed the record in 2005, aged 71.
Annoyingly, Socrates was only two months younger than him.
She’s a mathematician.
Surely she hadn’t miscalculated?
“Not exactly. I knew about Minoru and I shrugged — you can’t delay your trip because there’s an optimum window and I wanted to do it anyway. But after I got back a few boater friends suggested I should’ve gone a year later and claimed both records. That left me with the feeling... I’m not getting any younger, could I do it again?”

 Jeanne Socrates’ 38ft yacht Nereida
South West News Service

Socrates says that she is not spiritual or superstitious.
When she sees an albatross in the Southern Ocean she doesn’t get the jitters.
Given what happened next, it’s probably good that she’s not easily shaken by bad omens.

She decided to go for the record in 2016 (by then she was 74), but had to turn back after a 60-knot storm damaged her boat.
She tried again a few months later, but this time was foiled by problems with her “gooseneck” (the swivel joint by which the boom is attached to the mast).

Undeterred, the record attempt was rescheduled for October 2017, but, a week before her departure, Socrates fell off a ladder while hefting stores on board the Nereida, which was in dry dock.
Falling from deck height to the concrete below, she broke eight ribs, two neck vertebrae and her nose, and badly damaged her right elbow.
She was in hospital for three months.
“You deal with what is in front of you,” she says.
“I admit I was certainly not in the best physical condition, but you must understand I couldn’t give up. The boat is my home and she is my friend. I often say, ‘We did this,’ and people ask me, ‘Who’s we?’ and I explain, ‘It is the boat.’ We’d be together anyway. And like I say, if you have your health, then live your life. These chances aren’t there for ever.”

Last October she was still limping from the accident when she finally set off from Victoria.
Use of the yacht’s motor is forbidden and sails cannot be unfurled in the harbour, so a whale-watching boat towed her out to sea.

On board she had food for nine months: a lot of potatoes and onions (fresh onions are not as good as those with a dry outer skin, which keep better) and plenty of eggs (turning them daily keeps the inner membrane moist, meaning bacteria doesn’t penetrate and they can stay fresh for up to four months).
Occasionally as a special lunchtime treat she would open a tin of tuna or salmon.
“There is something slightly ironic about eating tinned tuna in the middle of the Pacific,” she admits.

Circumnavigating unassisted means not accepting help.
However, the rules are unclear about what happens when a squid jumps on to the deck of your boat.
“Oh yes, that happened a few times.
Strip off the black outer skin, fry in a bit of olive oil and you have the freshest calamari imaginable.”

She tried twice to sail the world solo, failing both times.
Came back and completed it in 2013.
Last year during prep she broke her neck and ribs.
This year, she again sailed the world solo as the oldest person by *6 years*

Sometimes the sea’s bounty was almost too generous.
One day a shoal of more than 50 flying fish dropped out of the sky.
“The ones I ate were a bit bony and soft, but quite palatable,” she says coolly.

Socrates was never lonely.
There were whales and dolphins to look at, not to mention different types of albatross as well as petrels and shearwaters.
With her SSB (single-sideband radio, which can communicate over vast distances) and computer she was chatting, blogging and emailing.
Occasionally she would find time to read, including Patrick O’Brian’s Master & Commander and Tracy Edwards’s Maiden, an account of the British yachtswoman’s 1990 Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race experience as skipper of an all-female crew.

“I’m 77 years old. For some women that means being offered a seat on the bus. But in the Southern Ocean I felt so amazing being alone — thousands of miles away from anyone — I don’t think I’ve ever felt more alive.”

Being on your own doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy an active social life.
When Socrates crossed the meridian, rounded one of the great capes or it was her birthday — she turned 77 while at sea last month — she threw a party.

“One can’t dress up, but I might put something dry on from my vacuum pack. For music, we put on Acker Bilk or Abba and have a glass of rum punch with some olives or hummus. It’s important to mark milestones and have fun when you can,” she says.
“Me and the boat.”

After days of very rough seas Jeanne's Remote Wind indicator stops working in very bad over night weather. She is 177 miles from Cape Horn.

In May there was near-disaster off New Zealand’s South Island when Socrates suffered a “knockdown” — a sailing term for when sea conditions tilt a boat so far over the mast touches the water or even becomes submerged.
The sea, she says, was “lively”, meaning the wind was at 45 knots and there were 24ft waves.
Even so, she never gets seasick.
She huddled below deck and tried to write her daily blog.
“I sat on the port settee and, next thing I know, a huge wave hit the boat like a slab of concrete.”
It smashed a hole in the cabin roof and washed the solar panels off the boat.
A blade from her wind generator was shorn off, the radar was damaged and the mainsail torn.
“You don’t get frightened as such, you just prioritise urgent scenarios,” she says.
“It would have been very difficult to contemplate abandoning the voyage. I’m pretty determined when things go wrong.”

In accordance with the “unassisted” rules Socrates stopped in Timaru harbour on the South Island and, without touching land or accepting assistance, made her repairs.
“I do like a challenge,” she says jauntily.
“That’s what they are. Not problems. Challenges.”

Her children, Ann-Zoe, 52, and Nicholas, 50, are not sailors, even though Nicholas, a pupil at Latymer when his mother taught there, went on that fateful sailing course.
Before she set sail last autumn they told her that they were worried they might never see her again.
“Of course there are risks, but I assured them that I know what I’m doing,” she says briskly.

Is she often accused of conduct unbecoming of a grandma?
“Well, lots of people wrongly think I dye my hair because it hasn’t gone grey,” she says, chuckling.
“Generally, people are very supportive. I think older women certainly like to see proof that, in life, you have choices. There is no reason to fade away if you’re fit and healthy. In America it’s far more sexist. They assume any man on the boat is the captain and they allow the woman the ceremonial title admiral.”

Socrates says that she won’t attempt another circumnavigation — much to her children’s relief, no doubt — but she is already planning her next expedition.
She would like to meet some of the friendly voices she spoke to on her radio face to face.
And she has also made contact with relatives of the father she never knew.
“I’ll be heading to Australia to meet them in the new year,” she says.
“But I’ll be doing that in a camper van".

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Thursday, September 12, 2019

The hidden fight to stop illegal fishing from destroying our oceans

One in five fish are now caught illegally.
Chinese crawlers tie up to a 'reefer' – the refuelling and offloading vessels that service the long-distance fleets

From Wired by Olive Heffernan

When trawlers turn off their transponders, they "go dark", allowing them to hide illicit activity such as illegal fishing and modern slavery.
Now, a team of ocean experts is using satellite data to light them back up

One Wednesday in March, 2019, a small group of ocean experts gathered in a conference room in Panama City’s Waldorf Astoria, ready to take the stage.
Outside, the weather was hot and muggy and the streets dirty with rubble from nearby roadworks.
Inside the cool, marbled interior of one of the city’s glitziest hotels, government officials from Panama, Ecuador, Colombia and Costa Rica sat on cream chairs in neat rows, listening intently.
First came the usual formalities: welcome addresses and statements of intentions to collaborate.
About halfway through the morning’s proceedings, it was Bjorn Bergman’s turn.

Bergman was sharply dressed for the occasion and looked serious as he addressed the delegates in effortless Spanish.
He was a data analyst at Global Fishing Watch (GFW), an environmental non-profit that, in 2016, started using satellites to track vessels at sea.
Ships of a gross tonnage of 300 or over are required, in international waters, to carry the Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponder, to avoid collisions.
Picked up by satellite, these communications can also be used to detect a ship’s movements.
Using this data, GFW mapped global fishing patterns for the first time, working out that around 55 per cent of the ocean is being fished.

With this same method, it has been able to visualise approximately 80 per cent of boats fishing international waters.
The other 20 per cent have been untraceable – in part because some nations, such as Canada, don’t insist on fishing vessel owners using an AIS at all, and most small boats (such as 90 per cent of the Indonesian artisanal fleet) aren't required to carry AIS.
However, some fishers simply turn off their transponders if they don’t want to be seen – a practice known as "going dark".

Fishers often cite competition as a reason for wanting to keep their location secret, but, in such cases, going dark is only a temporary measure.
The invisible fleet – also called "dark targets" – are vessels that are untraceable for long periods, maybe weeks or months at a time, and are presumed to be avoiding detection.
“We knew there was a dark fleet – that a lot of fishing in the world is not very easily trackable,” says David Kroodsma, head of research at GFW.
“The oceans are a common resource and when it's really difficult to track who's fishing, people are going to take advantage.”

Bergman had been hunting these dark targets relentlessly for several years.
However, one particular fleet of around 300 vessels – mostly Chinese squid trawlers – kept evading him.
Centred in a remote part of the South Pacific, beyond national waters, the fleet was hiding dark targets, which Bergman suspected were operating illegally.
As part of the fleet there were large refrigerated cargo boats – known as reefers – used for refuelling and offloading catch.
While that in itself is perfectly legal, "transhipment" of a boat’s catch is often an indicator of crime.
For a start, it’s an easy way of hiding poached fish, and other contraband, among legal catch.
Furthermore, it allows for ships to spend long periods away from land, hinting at the use of slave labour, something that is rife in long-distance fishing fleets.
The reefers enabled this fleet, with around 6,000 men, to stay at sea for a year or more.

Bergman knew that many of these reefers were carrying the Panama flag.
Under international law, all merchant ships must have a "flag state" or a country to which they are registered.
For a fee, Panama allows any ship to fly its flag, regardless of where it was built, or the country in which its owner – or indeed any crew member – lives: this is called a "flag of convenience".
The advantages of this include low (or no) income tax, access to cheaper labour, and obscuring the true ownership of a vessel or fleet.
Bergman’s message was simple: they needed Panama, a renowned secrecy jurisdiction, to share private data from its register, allowing Panama-flagged fishing vessels to be tracked across the global ocean.
Among these vessels were possible dark targets – vessels that were off-the-radar, avoiding detection and presumed to be acting criminally.
If Panama could share its data, GFW could expose pirate vessels.
As Bergman explained, it could also help Panama to stop piracy in its own waters.

Bjorn Bergman on the trail of 'dark targets'
credit : Simon Ager
There are numerous ways in which trawlers take illicit catch – intentionally playing down its value, targeting waters where no quotas have been set, or pillaging directly from protected waters, for example.
With one in five fish now caught illegally, and with 93 per cent of commercial stocks now fully- or over-exploited, the drive to end pirate fishing has never been greater.
“It's no secret that we have this massive overfishing problem.
And illegal fishing is a large part of that, so it seems pretty clear that this is something we should try to eliminate,” says Peter Hammarstedt, a conservationist and boat captain with Sea Shepherd, a non-profit ocean conservation organisation (with a track record in direct action) based in Washington state, in the US, and Melbourne, Australia.

Pirate fishing also points to human rights crimes such as slavery, brutality and forced labour.
China is acuused of being the worst offender by the NGO Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime.
In recent years, Chinese reefers have been caught illegally trans-shipping catch, such as sharks, in the Pacific.
In 2019, four dead crew were offloaded from Chinese and Taiwanese trawlers at the Port of Montevideo in Uruguay.
Two of the vessels are repeat offenders.
China’s distant-water fleet dwarfs all others, outsizing the US fleet by a factor of ten.
Having emptied its own coastal fisheries, China has turned to other national waters and the high seas, targeting high-value tuna, sharks and squid.
Its squid jiggers focus on two species – Humboldt and Argentine shortfin – regarded as among the most heavily fished in the world.

“It’s only relatively recently that they started doing this, and so we have no idea of the implications of hundreds of ships fishing squid this intensively,” says Bergman.
One worry is that it will deplete the squid stocks that South Americans depend on for food and work.
And that may be why, for Bergman, the quest to find and stop dark targets is a personal one.

As a child, Bergman lived for a number of years with his family in Peru, a country that is bearing the brunt of China’s aggressive overseas fishing policy.
Later, in secondary school, he visited for summer holidays with his father, who was a National Geographic-funded researcher investigating agriculture in the high Andes.
Bergman recently returned to live there, after many years in the US and Sweden.

After college, he moved to Alaska to work as a fisheries observer.
“It’s a job that you could start out in; they needed to recruit people because they had really high attrition.
So they're always trying to bring people into the programme,” he says.
The job was varied; at times he’d join family-run operations for trips of three to four days from Kodiak Island, which he really enjoyed.
But he also went on longer trips, of a month or so, on large industrial boats, working some of the ocean’s most dangerous fisheries.
“It was just a really difficult experience,” recalls Bergman.
By most accounts, working as an observer can be gruelling.
Since 2007, at least nine fisheries observers, including four Americans, have died on the job.
Foul play is suspected in at least two of these cases.
Many observers experience intimidation and bribery; others witness horrendous abuse.

After several years, Bergman was done.
He thought about going into academia – having by then completed a Master’s in cell biology – but he saw that environmental non-profit SkyTruth was recruiting analysts to work with fisheries data and decided to apply.
SkyTruth was founded by geologist John Amos with the idea of using satellite imagery to improve environmental accountability.

By 2014, Amos and Paul Woods, SkyTruth’s Chief Technology Officer – friends and neighbours from Shepherdstown, West Virginia – had made huge headway tracking the visible impacts of industry from space.
In 2010, they had gained acclaim as the first to challenge BP’s reports of the extent of oil pouring into the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon blow out, the largest accidental oil spill in history.
But one area they’d made little progress in was fishing.
Amos and Woods realised there was untapped value in an existing data set – the satellite detections of boats that use AIS.
At that point, maps of global fishing were notoriously unreliable, largely based on where biologists had found particular species.
The AIS system filled that gap.
Designed as a means for captains to relay their position to other vessels, AIS could be co-opted to track a ship’s movements, shining a light on global fishing patterns.

“We realised there was this huge data source of satellite AIS that covered the globe.
In the same way that we could measure features on land and see a change in land use, we looked at this and immediately knew we could use it to measure how people are using the ocean,” says Woods.
The simplicity of this approach was that AIS data was not only global but freely available, unlike the data from VMS (Vessel Monitoring System), a comparable satellite-based system for routinely logging a ship’s position, name and call sign.
Most nations mandate their larger domestic vessels carry VMS on board, but the system is expensive and the data usually proprietary, held by governments such as Panama's.

In 2014, Amos and Woods teamed up with Google and the marine conservation organisation Oceana to found Global Fishing Watch.
The following year, they hired Kroodsma, an experienced ocean scientist, to lead their research programme.
For data analysis, they brought in Bergman.

Despite having spent years on boats, it turned out that Bergman, a quiet, unassuming character, was deeply interested in the intellectual challenge of digging into the data.
And he was very good at it, possessing a natural ability to see patterns and anomalies.
GFW had more than 60 million data points per day on AIS vessel locations from satellites.
From their configurations, Bergman could simply look at the ship tracks on AIS and tell whether the boat was in transit or fishing – and if it was fishing, whether it was trawling, longlining (a trailing line with baited hooks at regular intervals) or purse seining (creating a net "cage" around the fish).
“Bjorn, having been on fishing vessels out in the Bering Sea, was able to look at those data and say ‘Hey, I know what they’re doing right now’,” says Amos.

In January 2016, of the 120,000 vessels at sea, Bergman noticed six that looked suspicious.
They were Chinese longliners fishing a remote part of the southern Indian Ocean, close to the search site for the lost Malaysian passenger plane MH370.
It wasn’t an obvious location for a fishing fleet, and “they were moving in a way that I wasn’t familiar with,” says Bergman, who noticed an unusually high number of AIS signals coming from the area.
“When I looked closer, I could see them laying out a long string of AIS beacons and then reeling them in”, he says.
Bergman contacted the local fisheries registries, but none of them recognised the vessels.
That was enough to raise the alarm.
From SkyTruth’s office in West Virginia, Bergman wrote a blog post detailing the suspect behaviour.

Over in Perth, Australia, Sea Shepherd captain Sid Chakravarty read Bergman’s blog and immediately launched a patrol mission.
What he discovered was shocking – the entire fleet was using banned drift nets laid out over kilometres of ocean, ensnaring species such as tuna, sharks, turtles and dolphins.
The trawlers were attaching AIS beacons to the nets so as not to lose them, which explained the pattern Bergman had noticed from his landlocked position in the US.

The activists intercepted the fleet, hauled in some of their nets and videoed them.
After that, the ships scattered and went dark.
But a month later, one boat turned on its transponder again, allowing Bergman to relay an updated position to Sea Shepherd.
The team ended up chasing the vessel for 8,000km across the ocean to the Chinese port of Zhuhai, where the entire fleet was eventually detained and suspended.
The fleet owner was fined nearly a million dollars (£800,000) by the Chinese authorities.
“It’s tremendously valuable to have a witness on the ocean,” says Bergman.
“We have a lot of data sources, but we need to corroborate some of what we are seeing, so that we can be sure we are drawing the right conclusions.”

Bergman had also learnt to identify other suspicious behaviours, such as unusual fishing locations, and to chart a ship’s most likely course from satellite data, in a way that most analysts were simply unable to.
In August 2017, for example, Bergman got a call to say that the Ecuadorian navy had just intercepted a vessel near the Galapagos islands.
A Chinese-flagged reefer, the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999, had repeatedly refused to respond to radio calls from the navy, and so a helicopter and coast guard boat were dispatched to take a closer look.
On boarding the vessel, the officers were stunned to find more than 6,000 dead sharks – the largest seizure of sharks in the history of Galapagos.

Despite the arrest, it wasn’t known where the sharks – some of which were endangered – were caught, or what other boats the trawlers had liaised with.
“Just having sharks on a boat in Galapagos is illegal, but they also wanted to know how they got them,” explains Bergman, who set about retracing the movements of the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999.
During his trial in Ecuador, the captain named two Taiwanese vessels as the source of the sharks.
But Bergman could see from the data that the reefer had a rendezvous with four Chinese longliners to the west of Galapagos.
“He clearly gave false testimony at the trial,” says Bergman.
The ship’s owner was fined US$5.9 million and the captain sentenced to four years in prison.
Last year, a crew member from one of the Chinese longliners confirmed that Bergman was right; they had offloaded their catch on to the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999.

 credit : Simon Ager

As a detective of the seas, Bergman seemed to be able to solve pretty much all cases that were presented to him.
Except for one.
He first noticed the fleet of Chinese squid jiggers in 2014.
The vessels were fishing along the boundary of Peru’s national waters, but suddenly, in 2017, the entire fleet unexpectedly shifted to a position in the South Pacific.

Some of the ships were not broadcasting AIS, making it impossible to know just how large the fleet was and what it was doing.
This case was different, and – from an analysts’ perspective – especially exciting.
Ordinarily, with dark targets, Bergman has to rely on vessels switching on their transponders to gauge their whereabouts.
But with the squid jiggers, which use lights to attract squid to the boat, there was another possibility.

In 2017, a research scientist named Chris Elvidge, who leads Earth observations at the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), one of the US research agencies, approached GFW with an idea: he had been developing a system to detect sources of light from space at night, making use of a satellite sensor called Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS).
He now wanted to see whether the lights used for squid jigging could help pick out some of the dark targets in Indonesian waters.

To test his idea, Elvidge needed Indonesian VMS data.
At that stage, GFW had just signed an agreement with Indonesia that would make its VMS data public.
The agreement was the first of its kind and would add 5,000 vessels to the team’s global fishing map.
It was a huge win in the team’s fight for transparency and was largely made possible by Indonesia’s minister for fisheries, Susi Pudjiastuti, who has taken a hard line against illegal fishing.
“The release of Indonesia’s VMS data was a big deal. That kind of broke a glass ceiling,” says Woods, who is now CTO with GFW.
Since taking office in 2014, Susi Pudjiastuti has seized and destroyed more than 300 illegal vessels found fishing in Indonesian waters.
(She’s also become known for her viral videos, which show her drinking coffee while paddle boarding, and dancing on board a naval vessel.)

Woods persuaded the Indonesians to hand Elvidge their VMS data, which NOAA then matched to its VIIRS vessel detections.
In 2018, GFW rolled out VIIRS data over the ocean, allowing Bergman and the rest of the team to see many boats that had, up to this point, been entirely dark.
Unlike AIS and VMS, VIIRS can’t tell the identity of a boat; it can just pick up a light signal which can then be compared against AIS or VMS data to see if the ship is broadcasting.
For the first time, Bergman was able to detect some of the dark Chinese squid fleet.

However, that still wasn’t enough to track all the vessels.
At this point, Bergman had no alternative: he was going to have to hunt them on the high seas.

On September 12, 2018, Bergman joined the MR Brigitte Bardot – a vessel operated by Sea Shepherd.
Travelling with Bergman was Eloy Aroni, a Peruvian researcher who was just finishing his thesis on tracking the squid fleet using VIIRS.
Looking ahead, Bergman and Aroni could see that some boats were visible on VIIRS, but not on AIS.
They still, however, had several days of travel before they reached their targets.

On September 19, they rounded the north cape of the island of Isabela, the largest of the Galapagos, and headed west into a vast stretch of the open Pacific.
Ahead of them, the nearest landfall was the Marquesas islands of Polynesia, some 3,000 nautical miles away.
They were venturing into one of the most remote parts of the planet on a voyage that would ultimately bring Bergman into contact with one of the world’s darkest fishing fleets.

But in a fleet 300-strong, like the one fishing the South Pacific, not all boats are squid jiggers.
Some are reefers, whose job it is to restock the fishing boats and to transship the catch.
To identify the reefers, Bergman had to use another data source: Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imagery.
Usually acquired from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 system, the advantage of radar imagery is that it can pick out large objects with metal hulls, such as medium-size trawlers, that are neither broadcasting their position nor displaying visible lights from space.
There are some downsides, however: SAR data is hugely expensive and users have to weed out other objects that, on radar, look just the same as boats, such as wind farms, oil and gas rigs, and icebergs.

Before heading out to the high seas, Bergman had snagged a couple of rare radar images of the fleet, taken from Canada’s RADARSAT-2 satellite.
This meant he had three data sources - AIS, VIIRS night imagery and radar – which he could use to find dark targets.
Beyond these, there’s also optical imagery, a term for forensic-level satellite photography, such as from Digital Globe’s WorldView-3 satellite.
These images are expensive, but a superior way of identifying a specific target at an exact location.
“You can do some work by association,” says Kroodsma.
“Say you see a fleet of several hundred boats going somewhere on radar, then you look at the AIS and only you see 30 or 50, right? You can often infer from those what the other ones are doing. You have to be smart about it, but you can kind of piece it together from different sources of information – AIS or VMS, VIIRS, SAR and optical. Using those, you can put together the whole story about what's happening in a region.”

As they steamed west from the Galapagos, Bergman considered how many people they might encounter, densely packed together around one relatively small spot in the expanse of the ocean.
By night, the boat’s deck was now offering shelter for dozens of squid that, on approaching the surface, were disoriented by the lights on the Brigitte Bardot, and needed a resting place.
Then, one afternoon, the first vessel appeared on the radar, displaying the signal BZZ5K – a callsign not registered to any authorised vessel.
As it came into sight, Bergman noted a Chinese flag flying above the wheelhouse and what looked like a tattered black sail at the boat’s stern.
The hull was covered in rust and soot, obscuring any clear markings.
As they approached they could make out the name Hua Ying 819.
It was a squid jigger, and it was legal.

They ploughed on, disheartened but undeterred.
Waiting until nightfall, the captain Chris Holt manoeuvred the patrol vessel closer to the fleet.
Suddenly Bergman found himself on the edge of a city on the high seas, filled with white lights, but also vibrant greens and dim yellows.
Illuminated at night, these were the squid jiggers that Bergman and Aroni had seen on the VIIRS map.
They made their way through the fleet, trying to spot any suspicious activity, but their efforts were thwarted by limited satellite reception.
This meant that the AIS broadcasts of each vessel were unlikely to be reliable.

By then, Bergman and the crew were running out of time and fuel.
They decided to return to shore to consider their next move.
Bergman's trip hadn’t revealed any pirate boats, but maybe he could still find them – from back home in Peru.
And for that he was going to need the help of the Panamanian authorities.

Simon Ager
Sea Sheperd's interceptor vessel Brigitte Bardot on patrol
In March 2019, after Bergman’s intervention at the Waldorf Astoria, Panama agreed to make its daily VMS data public through GFW’s platform.
Bergman and the team were delighted.
“Even though it’s a small country, as far as the ocean is concerned, Panama has a huge presence because of the flag of convenience,” says Bergman.
He will now be able to re-examine the Chinese squid-jigger fleet's movements around the Galapagos in more detail, with the hope of identifying suspicious rendezvous – such as transshipments – at sea.

“This gives us another chunk of the fleet that we have really solid data on,” says Woods, who planned to make the Panama data publicly available in summer 2019.
Already, Indonesia and Peru have added their VMS data to the GFW map.
In May, Chile agreed to release its VMS data, making yet another 1,100 vessels publicly trackable.
Costa Rica has committed to doing the same in 2019, and GFW is now in discussions with Ecuador.

Currently, GFW employs around 30 experts in data analysis, machine learning, fisheries research and maritime surveillance, located around the globe.
As well as nurturing new projects and developing its machine learning capabilities, a large part of GFW’s focus is now on persuading governments to release their VMS data.
While continuing to work on locating specific targets, Bergman’s brief has also widened to GFW regional manager for Central and South America.
Much of this involves the sort of diplomacy on show in Panama, talking to government officials about the quid pro quo of having a more transparent fishing fleet.
“Once we know who is fishing and where, we’ll be one step closer to sustainably managing fisheries throughout the ocean,” says Kroodsma.

Though Bergman didn’t catch sight of any pirate squid fishers on the high seas, he’s had some success in tracking them down.
Late last year, shortly after his return from the South Pacific, a Chinese squid jigger, RUN DA 608, ducked inside Peru’s exclusive economic zone, which extends 200 nautical miles from its coast.
The authorities intercepted the vessel and found 19 tonnes of squid.
At that stage, Aroni set to work on retracing the vessel’s fishing track.
“The freshness of the squid didn’t match their purported fishing location”, says Bergman, “so we tracked the vessel in reverse and we identified a detour.” In the night, the vessel had slowed for three to four hours, presumably starting to fish in Peru’s waters.
“We had the vessel and the fish seized,” he says.
“Before GFW, we did not have the data to do this.”

The team hopes that within a decade, all VMS data will be public, and that improved satellite coverage of the world's oceans – thanks to companies such as Planet Labs, which now has 170 miniature satellites in orbit – will bring more frequent and more reliable AIS detections.
“The constellations that are going up right now will cover the whole ocean for the first time.
Using different technologies, we'll really have the possibility of detecting all these vessels,” says Woods.
“It’s more cost-effective than wandering around a big chunk of the ocean and hoping to run into something. And it’s much more targeted.”
Bergman agrees: “Once we can monitor the dark fleet, the crime that's happening in the ocean will be pushed out into the open. They'll have nowhere to hide.”

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Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Victor Vescovo: Adventurer reaches deepest ocean locations

Watch Victor Vescovo touch bottom in the Malloy Trench

From BBC by Jonathan Amos

US adventurer Victor Vescovo has become the first person to visit the deepest points in every ocean.

His fifth and final dive in a prototype submersible was made to the bottom of the Arctic's Molloy Trench, some 5.5km (3.4 miles) below the sea surface.

 Molloy Deep with the GeoGarage platform (NHS nautical chart)

This followed dives during the past 10 months to the floor of the Pacific, Indian, Southern and Atlantic oceans.

The millionaire financier's team also visited the wreck of the Titanic.

All Mr Vescovo's dives were made using the 12-tonne Deep Sea Vehicle (DSV) Limiting Factor, launched and recovered from a dedicated support ship, the DSSV Pressure Drop, ironically a one-time navy submarine hunter.

The last leg of the "Five Deeps Expedition" was concluded on 24 August when the explorer reached a spot known as the Molloy Hole, which is about 275km (170 miles) west of Norway's Svalbard archipelago.
The recorded depth on the solo dive was 5,550m, plus or minus 14m.
It is the first time any human has been to this location.

Mr Vescovo spoke of his elation and deep gratitude to the people who had worked with him.
"These things need to be done," he told BBC News.
"I come from a philosophy that says we're put here not just to survive, or even just to be comfortable - but to contribute in some way.
And the path I chose was to have some adventure whilst also doing something that could move us forward as a species."

The former US Navy reservist's wealth and drive have previously led him to ski to both poles and to climb the highest mountains on every continent.
But it's evident when you talk to him that he is utterly absorbed by the science he's facilitated.

Over the course of the worldwide tour, researchers deployed more than 100 landers.
These are instrumented frames that sink to the seafloor and record what they see and sense on the way down, and at the seabed.

The VSSV Pressure Drop has collected a large amount of bathymetric (depth) data

The Five Deeps science team says it has discovered upwards of 40 new species in the process.
A large catalogue of biological and water samples awaits analysis in the lab, including a unique set of bottom-water samples retrieved at every one of the five deeps visited.

Dr Alan Jamieson is the expedition's chief scientist.
He highlighted the measurements of salinity, temperature and depth that were made by the sub and the landers.
"You cast on the way down and on the way up, and if you add up the metres we measured - it works out at 1.5 million metres of water," he said.
This will help researchers better understand ocean circulation, which is needed to improve the computer models that project future climate scenarios.
"We have so few measurements from the deepest parts of the oceans, from below 6,000m," the Newcastle University, UK, marine biologist added.

 credit : 5 Deeps Expedition

The DSSV Pressure Drop mapped the seafloor as it traversed the five oceans.
This bathymetric (depth) data covers roughly 300,000 sq km - an area equivalent to Italy.
This is being donated to the international project (GEBCO) that seeks to chart the entire global ocean floor by 2030.
Currently, less than 20% has been mapped to an acceptable resolution.

But the Five Deeps Expedition has also fundamentally demonstrated the capability of the latest deep-sea technology.

Victor Vescovo: "I thought it needed to be done"

The hope is that the DSV Limiting Factor will now be followed by many more such vehicles.
"I think what Victor has done is remarkable and others are going to want to continue what he's started by going back to some of these places and spending more time there," said Patrick Lahey, co-founder of Triton Submarines which built the Limiting Factor.
"You're starting to see more privately funded marine research being conducted by wealthy individuals who bought subs they thought they would use recreationally but are now using to complete scientific expeditions, to give people like Al Jamieson a platform to work from."

It is no surprise to learn that Victor Vescovo has set his sights on going into space; he's actively talking to those who might help him get there.

However, he's far from done with ocean research and expects next year to conduct further dives in previously unexplored trenches around the Pacific rim.

The American oceanographer Don Walsh made history in 1960 when he joined Jacques Piccard in making the first crewed dive to the deepest point on Earth - the Challenger Deep, part of the Pacific's Mariana Trench.
Mr Walsh marvels at the latest technology.
"What you have here is a system - the ship, the sub and the landers.
They interact and cooperate, and when you see them working together it's like a ballet," Mr Walsh told BBC News.
"What's impressive is the repeatability - being able to dive time and time again."

Atlantic Productions is making a five-part documentary about the Five Deeps Expedition for the Discovery Channel.
It's likely to air early next year.

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